UT Medical Center nurse shares her views from inside the COVID ICU

Bailey Baker, a staff nurse inside the COVID ICU at UT Medical Center, shares what she and her coworkers are seeing as a second wave sweeps through.
Published: Aug. 23, 2021 at 2:14 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 23, 2021 at 6:19 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - The University of Tennessee Medical Center has an ICU dedicated solely to working with patients diagnosed with COVID-19.

“We keep them all in one area, we don’t expose them to the rest of our staff, you know we try and protect them as best we can,” said Bailey Baker a staff nurse in the University of Tennessee Medical Center’s COVID ICU unit.

Baker has worked in the ICU for nearly four and a half years. Working prior to the start of the pandemic in the general ICU, she specialized in treating patients suffering from pulmonary issues.

At the start of the pandemic, as cases increased, Baker was moved along with other coworkers into the dedicated COVID-19 ICU unit.

“Honestly, COVID in and of itself is a very pulmonary disease, especially to the point of where you need to be in an intensive care unit. So, it really only made sense for our medical nurses who would take care of pulmonary-based patients to take care of these patients,” said Baker. “Obviously, if there were people very uncomfortable taking care of these patients they could go and work in other units but, for the majority of us, we took it on and were honored to be on the frontlines of this thing and do everything we could to help our patients.”

For Baker, she says her line of work isn’t the easiest. In a unit where they got the sickest patients, death was something she saw often, but it wasn’t always all around her and her coworkers.

“I definitely dealt with death quite a bit, but we definitely had people make it, we saw life quite a bit. Once I became an ICU nurse one thing I loved most about it is being a source of hope, hope for family members. You know they would come in and they would see their family members hooked up to all these machines and it was very scary for them, and being that reassuring light and say this looks really scary but we’ve got it and here’s what’s going on and a lot of the times patients made it,” said Baker.

The hope they saw would power them onto the next day of work, keeping them coming back to continue to fight for their patients.

In the spring of 2020, things changed in Baker’s line of work dramatically.

In her move to the COVID ICU her outlook on her job, and the way they treat patients changed.

If you asked Baker what a win in her line of work looked like before the pandemic, it was easy.

“You know used to, my favorite thing to do was extubate where I could finally understand what they were trying to say, for days mouthing around their tube and you know, get them that blanket they have been asking for or whatever,” said Baker. “That was my favorite part, finally getting to communicate the way that you and I are communicating, with my patients.”

Those were the old wins, today’s look much different.

“These days a win is getting our patients on low enough oxygen at 40 percent on that decreased pressure that they’re requiring on their ventilator and usually at 14 days were sending that trach, because their esophagus is becoming damaged and other things but now it’s just were getting them to where the surgeon is comfortable enough to get them to a place where they can do that, is a win,” said Baker. “Another win these days is going a day without having to put someone on a ventilator those things have become things we just hold onto and take with us on our day to day, like today, I kept my patient on a Vapotherm instead of a ventilator so that’s a win and things like that.”

While dedicated to helping their patients any way they can, this constant last act to save lives is taking its toll on Baker and her coworkers.

“The biggest emotion right now is just emotional fatigue. I think that goes for all the nurses I’m working with, it’s just an emotional place to be,” said Baker. “We’re working there full-time, that’s our home. So, I think just emotionally tired is the best way to describe how we’re feeling right now.”

This fatigue Baker outlines is tough on all her coworkers.

As they work to cope with this constant stress, they find outlets to take their minds off the day’s work, and be able to come back and do the job the next day.

“We started working with a therapist just about how this has taken a toll on us emotionally, mentally, and physically,” said Baker. “Sometimes you have to go to a supply closet and just cry a few tears because you just lost your patient or they just got placed on a ventilator and you know you’ve gotten close to them, and I think there’s no shame in that. I don’t think there’s a perfect way to cope with the death and suffering that we’ve seen, but I do know we go home and try to come back to do our best so we can give our patients the best care possible.”

For Baker, this second round of infections is taking an especially tough toll on coworkers who thought they were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel at the beginning of the summer.

“We went through a little bit of a lull where we had four positive patients in our unit. You know, I was coming to work and getting to go into my patient’s rooms like this, just looking like this. I kind of felt naked and it was weird but it was nice. We were getting to see some of our normal patient population back and we were getting to have conversations with our patients, it was really nice you know, we kind of got that glimpse of our old life back,” said Baker, “And then it came back, these patients are younger and sicker than we’ve ever seen them, they’re not only young but healthy, with no underlying health conditions, I’m talking 20′s and 30′s, mothers who have just had babies mothers who have 4 and five-year-olds, they’re very young and they’re extremely sick.”

Baker says she sees the world in perspective.

For her, she sees the worst that COVID does to someone’s body, mind, and spirit.

“We’re seeing this as something that is killing our patients in a way that I’ve never experienced. I’ve seen a lot of patients die from different things but what these patients are suffering, and I don’t mean to scare people or be too blunt, but the suffering these patients are going through before they’re on a ventilator even the ones who get off the ventilator, who get that trach and move to the facility, it’s after months and months and months of us putting them through things where we’re like, is this ethically appropriate, is this what that patient would want,” said Baker.

While that is her perspective, she hopes a view from inside her ICU will help shift the way people think about and view this virus.

“We here as a healthcare community are going to be here doing everything we can to fight this virus, but we can’t do it without the help of the community, not only supporting us but getting vaccinated, wearing their mask, social distancing all of those things to try and help prevent the spread of this so that we can, we can hopefully see a different perspective so that these health care workers that are so rundown and so exhausted and can see their perspective on the outside so like were seeing death we can see the common cold, that’s what we want,” said Baker. “We want to see a common cold we want this to be under control and we can’t do it without the help of our community.”

She begs for a community effort, to help stem the rising cases and worker burnout.

For the RN it comes down to a shift in mindset, one she hopes comes along with a realization this is a team effort, and everyone is on the same team.

“Remembering were all in this together, and remember we as your healthcare team here at The University of Tennessee Medical Center we are going to do all we can to protect you, but we have to do it as a team, hand in hand, together,” said Baker. “And without the community, we are literally nothing and we’re proving that right now. “We are almost all vaccinated, and we are in a surge, unlike anything I have seen this whole COVID pandemic, yea that would be my final plea, protect yourself, wash your hands, wear your mask, and get your vaccine.”

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